The Kirk’s Radical Action Plan
A lay parish worker in the Church of Scotland reports on a radical plan for the future of the Kirk which was agreed at this year’s General Assembly.
Travelling through to Glasgow for the Open House New Directions conference in June, the General Assembly’s debates and decisions were fresh in my mind. This year’s Assembly approved three major reports, including a Radical Action Plan which will shape the future of the Church of Scotland for years to come. For me, the Open House conference provided a fascinating and often moving chance to hear echoes and similarities as well as differences in the way our churches are facing challenges and opportunities: sharp falls in church membership and income, closing of churches, an acute shortage of clergy, and an awareness that current models of governance and organisations aren’t working.
In the background were other themes that struck me and I believe that three areas – leadership, youth involvement and gender – may come into focus in the future for the Church of Scotland.
A quick checklist of Church of Scotland terminology:
Kirk Sessions: the governing body of a congregation, composed of Elders, who are (non-clerical) church members, ordained into the eldership for life.
Presbyteries (currently 43 in Scotland) govern the church at regional level.
The General Assembly, the supreme governing body (c. 730 members) meets once a year and includes representatives of ordained ministers, deacons and elders, all with equal voting power. Its composition changes every year.
The Church of Scotland Youth Assembly for 18 to 25 year olds. Ten of them attend the General Assembly (non-voting) where the Youth Moderator gives a report.
At the Open House conference, one presentation stated with passion: ‘Do not change because of declining numbers and ageing population or because of the decline in numbers being ordained…’ The Radical Action Plan was honest in stating ‘this is where we are’. There is no denying that decline in membership and ordinations, and their financial consequences, are two of the major drivers for change. There was striking agreement about what needed to be done:
Up to £25m to be spent on projects aimed at church growth, with particular emphasis on church planting.
100 new worshipping communities to be established.
Focus on engaging with people under 40.
Cost of central administration to be cut by up to 30%: four councils to be merged into two.
Number of Scottish presbyteries to be reduced from 43 to about 12, focused on supporting local congregations in their ministry and mission.
Networks, hubs and other new local church structures to be developed.
Kirk Sessions to be reduced in size and focused on ‘leadership and strategic decision-making’.
Decision-making and resources to be devolved from the central administration to regional and local levels.
No congregation to pay more to the centre after next year until new arrangements are agreed.
Land and buildings plan to focus on ‘well equipped spaces in the right places’. Money from sale of redundant buildings to be shared between congregations.
Improved training and support for all ministry and leadership roles.
General Assembly to be made smaller and its workings to be reviewed
Encouragement of a season of ‘prayer and preparation’ across the Church from September to December 2019.
In addition, from June this year, there will be a body of 12 Trustees, ‘with responsibility for overseeing the work of the central charity and its finances, and ensuring that all parts of the organisation are working in accordance with the strategic priorities of the Church’. The 12 were appointed during the Assembly. Concern was expressed however that the balance of gender and age was far from satisfactory – eight men, four women, and few under 40, when it is the younger generation that will have to live with the decisions being made.
So where were the sticking points, the passion, the tensions and the prophetic speeches in the debate?
Devolving to regional level
A big thrust of the Plan is for devolution of funds and decision-making to Presbytery, ie. regional, level, but with reformed Presbyteries and a determination to do things better and differently. Presbytery reform has been discussed for years but never happened. Some Presbyteries are already working together and sharing resources – funds, people, facilities. By 2025 – many wanted it to be sooner – the plan is for around 12 Presbyteries, replacing the current 43. Encouragement for this change came from remoter areas such as Shetland and Argyll; the former has moved to having only one united parish, and is joining with Aberdeen Presbytery. The message was clear – if it can be done with the geographical challenges there, it can be done elsewhere.
Local teamwork and ‘hub’ ministries, rather than the ‘one church, one parish’ model, are planned, partly driven by the shortage of ministers, but also because many church buildings are no longer fit for purpose. Next year will see a report, ‘Well-equipped Spaces in the Right Places’, which will bite the bullet on this. There were some passionate statements, both from Assembly commissioners and delegates from other churches, that the future of Christianity in Scotland has to be the work of the whole Church. ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel’ was a recurring phrase, and pleas were made that when planning at local or regional level, ecumenical partners should be involved from the beginning. The example of ecumenical work in the diocese of Cumbria was described and warmly commended by several speakers: ‘people respond and come forward when they see how we work together’.
A significant part of the pain may be borne at the Church’s central offices in 121 George Street, where the staff serving the church’s councils and other organisations are likely to face cuts. The ‘outward-facing’ work of the Church, in World Mission and Church and Society, is likely to be merged into one council; similarly, Mission and Discipleship and Ministries will probably become one ‘inward-facing’ council, focusing on congregational life and ministry in its several forms – though of course their work is also outward facing. In my work as a lay parish worker and outreach leader, I have felt for a long time that this merger is advisable, particularly in education and training.
One message that came over clearly, and sometimes very bluntly, was a sense of remoteness from decision-making, not least in how their congregations’ contributions to the central Mission and Ministries fund is assessed and spent. The principle of all contributing, so that poorer churches can still do the work of the Gospel, was not in question. But the longest debate resulted from a motion expressed with passion and anger from a minister who listed half a dozen ways in which her church raises money for community needs and wellbeing, in addition to their contribution for the central fund. She said, ‘from being fishers of men, we have become tax collectors.’ The fact that her motion to freeze congregational contributions was overwhelmingly approved spoke volumes.
There is in fact little that is ‘new’ in the Plan. Many of the proposals have been discussed repeatedly for the last 20 years or longer. Why then has it taken till now for the Church to make these decisions?
Questions of leadership
One reason – and the Church has still to address this – may be that Presbyterianism offers little scope for developing inspiring, sustained leadership at national or regional level. Because Presbytery and national Moderators serve only one year, there is a vacuum in the kind of named, authoritative (not authoritarian) and at its best, collaborative, leadership that a bishop, or similar, might provide. Almost at the end of the debate, a special commission was set up to examine ‘the Presbyterian form of church government’, which may find itself addressing exactly this issue. That could turn out to be a far-reaching decision – if the Church can move quickly enough to act on it.
At local level, there can also be an inherent ‘ageing’ in decision making. Because eldership is for life, Kirk Sessions are dominated by older people and may be too large for flexible, strategic thinking. Potential elders nowadays are often put off by the ‘lifelong’ commitment. It’s likely now that elders will be able to serve limited terms (though still ordained for life).
I saw this year a greater confidence and outspokenness in younger ministers and members in the Assembly, and many spoke of the urgent need to involve young people, and resource work with them, as part of the Action Plan. One minister, a former youth worker, was blunt in his assessment: banks, politics, Churches, institutions, have lost the trust of young people – ‘yet they’re pleading for the Church to be something they can believe in’. In this respect, it is a great pity that the National Youth Assembly is likely to be wound up from next year; this is exactly the wrong moment for such a move. It provides a forum for young people to meet, debate, develop as potential leaders for the Church in future, and act as a body – and its representatives should have votes at the General Assembly. Time will tell; with radical action now ‘the norm’, perhaps this decision will be revisited.
A fuller account of the Radical Action Plan and the General Assembly can be found at
Jennifer Stark is Church and Community worker in Richmond Craigmillar, a Priority Area church in Edinburgh, and is a member of the Open House executive committee.